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Britain Prepares for Visit by Pope Benedict XVI

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Henry Ridgwell

Pope Benedict XVI will arrive Thursday in Britain for a four-day visit.  It is only the second papal visit to the country since the Reformation and the first official state visit.

Claz Gomez taps away eagerly at the keyboard of her computer.  She is hugely excited about the pope's visit to Britain and has set up a papal visit blog that has so many hits the Catholic Church has brought her on board to help promote Pope Benedict's tour.

"My family would say I have been completely obsessed I think!  My family would say I am obsessed," said Gomez.  "Over the past week and a half I have been trying to get articles out once a day.  For example I have a blog post on the 'Pilgrim Pack'.  The young people of the diocese have received a lovely trendy red T-shirt, the young pilgrim's booklet, and this is England so we might just need the papal visit poncho!"

Grainne McGuire also is busy preparing for the pope's visit, but she has very different feelings.  In a small London apartment, she and a dozen other young people are making placards and imitation miters to take on the planned demonstrations against the visit, which thousands of people are expected to join.

"We are making these hats and we are going to be wearing them with slogans like 'God loves children, women and gays', 'Shame on You, You Bring Shame on Catholics', and 'Pope Benedict, Where is the Love?'  There are various slogans; we are going to be wearing them on our march with different banners with the reasons why we are protesting the visit," said McGuire.

These opposing views reflect the divisions that the visit is causing throughout society.  

The pope has thanked Britain in advance for the effort involved.  "I am very much looking forward to my visit to the United Kingdom, and I send heartfelt greetings to all the people of Great Britain.  I am aware that a vast amount of work has gone into the preparations for the visit."

The cost of the preparations, $19 million, excluding security, is just one of the objections raised by opponents.  Benedict's trip is a full state visit, partly funded by the British taxpayer, a privilege that has angered protesters, such as those attending this town-hall debate on the issue.

Under the umbrella group 'Protest the Pope,' they plan to hold a series of demonstrations during the visit.  Human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is at the forefront of the protests.  "We do not fund visits by the Grand Mufti of Mecca or the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, so why should the pope's visit get this special privileged financial support?  In particular we are concerned about the pope's role in the cover-up of child abuse," said Tatchell.

The issue of child abuse within the Catholic Church has resurfaced with further allegations coming to light, prompting accusations of a cover-up.  The pope's visit to Britain has rekindled anger among victims and campaigners who believe the Church has not done enough to address the issue.

Despite the controversy, Catholics from across Britain, and even many overseas visitors, are gearing themselves up for the opportunity to see the pope.  

Benedict will celebrate Mass in Westminster Cathedral in central London before addressing 2,500 young people on the square outside.  The Bishop here says it is right that the pope is being afforded a full state visit.

"The pope may not be a king of a great nation, but he is the spiritual leader of 1 in 5 people on the planet, and he is going to do a considerable amount of good while he is here I am sure, and it is quite right for our nation to fund that," said the Bishop at Westminster Cathedral.

Pope Benedict has a tightly-packed schedule in Britain; he will celebrate two open-air Masses in Scotland and London, he will meet Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister David Cameron, and he will conduct the beatification of a Cardinal.

For Gomez and tens of thousands of other pilgrims, it will be a unique opportunity to see and hear from the figurehead of their faith.  McGuire and thousands of other protesters also will be following the pope every step of the way to make their objections to the visit loud and clear.

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